Can a Pandemic Be a Traumatic Event?

By Melvin Hayden


COVID-19 has literally turned our world upside down. The misinformation or information, which ever you choose to believe, is damaging on all levels. If you are a Christian, you believe that your covered in Jesus. Sickness, or no sickness, you will be healed or your immune system is durable by speaking a word of the Lord over yourself.  If you’re confused about the pandemic then you are wearing a mask in the car, out the car, shopping, eating, bedtime and much more - you get the point.


However, I do know that toothpaste sales have gone up. Never in history have we had to smell our own breath for extended amounts of time such as these. You should send your dentist a thank you note. But seriously folks, the trauma we are experiencing will leave a lasting effect on those of us that are really experiencing the damage. I caution those that are not directly affected to be aware that many people’s family members or other people they know were sick or may have died. Our experience can vary greatly, based on not only different levels of exposure, but also on what is going on around us.

Handsome young man wearing hawaiian shir

It’s not hard to become overwhelmed with our own worry, panic or grief. It can be hard to provide the reassurance we need. The way a person reacts may therefore be strongly influenced by how others around them are reacting. The battle will always be what you believe. If you are in a bubble and not effected by the damage around you, your view will vastly differ from those that have. It’s okay to know that on some level worry, confusion or sadness at this time is almost expected. We need to look at what specific emotional and behavioral reactions might indicate traumatic stress, rather than post-traumatic stress, as the current stressors are ongoing. Reactions following a traumatic event always vary depending on what was previously experienced and how it was handled. It does not matter what age you are at this point. We are all learning crisis management and how to build that plane in the sky.

Our developmental level, degree of social support and coping skills have never been challenged for such a time as this. It is not uncommon for us to waver in how we show signs of trauma or not show signs at all. However, the silent killer can be to show signs after the event is over because during the crisis, we are preoccupied with survival. You should expect unwanted thoughts or images. The mind has its own movie reel and it’s on constant repeat. It’s a feeling of your inability to control your own imagination. It’s worse if you lose the ability to write, draw, talk or act out what your feeling and the events that led up to them. “Research has shown that while some children exhibit signs of stress in reaction to traumatic events, these symptoms will likely resolve within a few days or weeks, while some may have a more lasting impact” (Brown). If your child’s symptoms do not decrease in two to four weeks after the event, it may be good to see a child or adolescent psychiatrist or psychologist he says. “Of course, this is hard to assess during a prolonged event such as a pandemic, so if in doubt consult with a professional” (Brown).

In helping our children process through this time, we should be providing developmentally appropriate information, as well as taking in good information for ourselves. Good information means taking in what’s right for your family. We all have a choice to take in information – and some of that information may be incomplete or inaccurate, which means a lot is out there. However, never stop asking your child what they have heard and whether they have questions. 

Image by niklas_hamann
Image by Adeolu Eletu

Provide concrete explanations while avoiding euphemisms, such as things that explain away their truth. That can be confusing and it never helps with healing. We are aware that children ask the same question many times, only because they are concerned. We often do this in our own heads, never letting anyone hear our inner thoughts. We should be honest with ourselves on how we really feel and what is really going on with our money, our job and resources. As a tool, limit your own exposure to media outlets and rhetoric. Being in a state of confusion is overwhelming and it leads to more of the same. 


Adam D. Brown, PhD, Traumatic Stress in Children, Child Study Center: Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone (2019)